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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Car Oriented

I chose to live close to my work at Fort Meade thinking I would drive less. I live close to the base on which I work, and since there's bubkes for transit options to the base, I figure it is best to shorten my commute. It will save money. I'll drive less.

But instead I drive more, since I can't go anywhere from my Laurel neighborhood without driving... not even the grocery store two blocks away, as no sane person would attempt to cross Route 1 while carrying something. And considering that I'm a single 29 year old with an active social life, I like to venture out of Laurel as often as possible. I have a part-time night job in Bethesda, volunteer with a youth program in Silver Spring, I have a ton of friends that live in places like Capitol Hill, Rosslyn, and Dupont, my familiy lives mostly in Silver Spring, and I like to attend sporting events in DC and Landover. All of those locations have one distinct advantage over Laurel: Metro stations.

The buses on Route 1 is painfully slow even during off-peak hours. It doesn't run past 8pm, which is generally when I get off work, and is less reliable on the weekends. Greenbelt and Cheverly Metro stations are where I usually hop on the Metro if I'm going into DC or Virginia, but even those are 15 minute drives in light traffic.

I won't shy away from the fact that I enjoy a good glass of scotch or two from time to time, but I have to plan carefully if I want to go meet friends in Bethesda, Old Town, or H Street for a couple of drinks. Fact is, 100% of drunk drivers are driving at the time. I wonder how many DUI's Metro has prevented over the years.

I try to combine trips as often as possible, but walking anywhere from my house is laborious. There are no sidewalks in my neighborhood. Route 1, where every road in my neighborhood empties, has few sidewalks on my stretch and even fewer crosswalks. Most retail near me is hidden behind a sea of paking lots, including the moribund Laurel Mall, where I only shop when I am absolutely desperate (although here's a great secret: the Macy's there is always fully stocked because no one shops there).

For someone who hates paperwork as much as I do, driving is a nightmare. There is insurance, an expensive necessary evil to legally drive in most of the US. If you live anywhere near a city, the price goes up significantly. MVA (which is Marylandese for DMV) registration, tags, and drivers license are relatively cheap, but minor oversights are costly. Should insurance, tags, license, or registration lapse, there are heavy penalties. Then there is the occaisional parking ticket (I have had plenty at work when parking was particularly bad and I chanced it in a reserve space) and if you're really not paying attention, speed camera ($50 for 36 mph on Minnesota Avenue at 3 a.m. last month... I'm not complaining about speed cameras, but ouch).

The real cost of my car oriented lifestyle is huge. I make a decent living on a federal salary. I'm certainly not loaded, but I make a decent wage by most standards. My car is a modest American sedan that gets 30 mpg that I purchased used on a 5 year loan. My car payment, insurance, scheduled maintenance, and gas (to and from work ONLY, assuming $2/gal) eats up over 20% of my take home salary, which includes my federal salary, my VA disability, and my night job. I don't care how much anyone makes. 20% of any living wage is ludicrous. And that 20% doesn't include emergency repairs (like a new set of tires that wasn't covered by my insurance, $600), tickets, MVA fees, or gas to get anywhere besides work. And to add insult to injury, my tax dollars are now going to bail out the automakers. I already gave them my money when I purchased my car. Rest assured that when I purchase another one, it will not be a GM, Ford, or Chrysler.

That's 20% I can't spend on improving my house. If it comes down to it, an emergency repair on my car takes precedence over one for my house, because I can't get to work without my car. The irrational prioritization I am forced to uphold for my automobile is absurd, but it is a simple fact that most Americans take in stride. Supposedly offering the freedom of mobility, many Americans are in my position, and I consider myself a slave to my car.

Why did I take this in stride most of my life? I was raised in a car-oriented suburb in Silver Spring, a quarter mile from a Beltway exit. The only thing I could walk to from my house without a very long trek involving significant distance along a six lane highway was the community swimming pool, which of course was only open three months a year. I attended high school four miles from my house at a private school with no bus service. I would take Metrobus home from school often, however the school has since relocated far away from the a Metro station and I would not have that option today.

Furthermore, as Rob at Extraordinary Observations points out, previous generations (i.e., the parents who raised us) venerate automobiles. Cars were status symbols and not necessary evils. Where our parents dreamt of moving out to the suburbs, today's young adults are flocking back to the cities. To the Cold War generation, riding transit could be compared to people today who use Walkmans instead of iPods... it spurned progress while at the same time it was a sign of weakness. He also points out that young adults enter the work force from college with enormous debt, which most of our parents did not face. Six figure debt at age 23 is not uncommon in our society, as medical costs and especially college tuition increase have greatly outpaced income increases.

After high school I attended Montgomery College in Rockville, to which I drove, and worked at a store in Cleveland Park, to which I took Metro when feasible. After college, I joined the Army. I have repeatedly stated that it is nearly impossible to get by in the US Army without an automobile, an overpowering irony for the service that prides itself on "beating feet". So when I purchased my house five years ago, I thought I was doing the responsible thing living close to work. And perhaps, to a degree, I was. But living far from transit has cost me a great deal, even if I can't take transit to work.

Don't get me wrong, I love driving. I find it cathartic to be on an open road. For liesure, I used to drive out to northwestern Montgomery County and take in the sights. I always offer to drive on road trips. I love that I can hop in the car on a whim and go just about anywhere in America I choose. But there is a distinct difference between chosing to drive and being wholly dependent on an automobile. There is a difference between driving for leisure and driving because you are forced to drive.

Currently, the extra money that goes into driving is ironically prohibiting me from improving my location by moving somewhere more transit accessible. I probably will never give up driving, but I am committed to driving less. More importantly, I will continue to remind myself and those around me how expensive it can be when you lead a car-oriented lifestyle.


Rob Pitingolo said...

Great post. Debates over car ownership often come down to black-and-white reasoning over whether you need to drive everywhere or never drive again in your life. It doesn't have to be that simple. You have a driver's license; you know how to operate a vehicle; and you occasional enjoy driving - that's cool. I don't think car rentals or car sharing is going anywhere soon, meaning those who still love to drive can do so - but the feeling of dependence and financial strain will be lifted.

It's hard to admit that the place you decided to make the biggest purchase of your life (a home) has major flaws - and I give you much credit for understanding the limitations in terms of sidewalks, transit, etc in Laurel. It is unfortunate that so many are still in denial about these things, and they will continue to support bad public policy in order to reinforce the idea that they made an excellent decision in where to purchase a home.

The point you make about DUIs is important because when Metro proposed eliminating the midnight - 3am owl service on Fridays and Saturdays, they cited only the operating costs as their liability. The question is: what is the cost of a life? Is it higher than the cost to operate transit at night? Do we need extra law enforcement during that window of time? How much will they cost? And who ultimately has to pay for it?

Erik said...

Great post! I found myself in your *exact* situation. I'm glad to hear there are like minded individuals. I also work in Laurel, and bought my first house in Laurel. After 3 years, I found myself driving every to get anywhere and everywhere in car-dependence. I wanted to walk, bike, and take public transport from my house. Plus I didn't need a big suburban house with a yard. I was raised with this being the ideal lifestyle. But when I attained it, I was not happy.

I then decided to move to DC, 30 miles away from work. Even with the 30 mile commute, I drive less overall now than I did with my 5 mile commute. All those trips to the store and social life added up. Now my only driving is to work, and I carpool which saves me even more. My evenings and weekends are car-free. For me it was the right move. I was shocked after the first year to notice my overall driving went down. I was not expecting that. Now I don't feel like I'm a slave to car dependence. And in the summers take the MARC up to Laurel and bike the rest of the way to work. On top of that, my house and neighborhood fits who I am. I think more young professionals are not going to accept living in the burbs, and several companies will have to rethink their locations and accessibility to attract the best talent.

Cavan said...

Dave, that is really eloquent writing.

I lived in Laurel off of Muirkirk between November 2004 and January 2007. I was totally car dependent and never though twice about it since I had grown up that way too. This infrastructure stuff was invisible to me.

It was the move to Wheaton, while at the same time working on a Master's in Financial Economics that got me to start thinking about the interaction between our infrastructure and our daily lives. I found that I viewed the world differently on foot than I did in a car. I eat much less fast food, too.

A couple of books later and discovering our blogs and I'm commenting on GGW, then posting.

DBox said...


Consider devoting some time to lobbying local government. In my experience (I live in Alexandria), the City Council and staff are surprisingly receptive to new ideas, especially if you volunteer to help them implement it. Joining a local board or commission ( like the Transportation and Public Safety Committee would give you the opportunity to lobby the City's government in an official capacity.